On many levels, the Hougang by-election last week was a reality check. After the watershed 2011 General Election, did the PAP government adopt a softer, more enlightened approach this time? After their biggest six seat win, winning the Aljunied GRC for the first time and retaining the Hougang SMC, was the Worker’s Party 62.09% win a convincing win? Do we really know why the WP had to fight for Hougang again after winning it last year? And was there a real risk of the WP losing Hougang? Did the WP absolve itself of alleged unaccountability and disunity within its party? Was the coverage by the mainstream media bias as accused?
I did not pay much attention to Desmond Choo last year. He was fresh-faced, energetic and could connect on the ground to a certain extent. This year, I couldn’t help but notice him. He was not your brilliant greenhorn scholar or commanding market-untested general whose limitations would become obvious when the going got rough and tough. He showed he had overcome last year’s setback and would stay the course. His tact and strategies were calculated and some were fairly transparent, but there was an earnest energy that was not misplaced.
Png Eng Huat in comparison was much older and someone in urgent need of image upgrading. While Choo was effectively bi-lingual, Png was not fully conversant in English or Mandarin. He was, in short, awkward. He seemed honest, direct, hardworking, and probably not another Yaw Shin Leong or Poh Lee Chuan. But he would be the cause of worry if you wanted him to win. And I was worried. Because Hougang was where it all started in 1991. The WP was now the single credible opposition. The WP, with hopefully some new blood in the coming two to three years, was to help create an engaging political landscape for the maturing electorate. All these seemed in danger of collapsing, like how Potong Pasir fell last year.
The perceived heavy-handedness of the PAP and what seemed like uneven coverage by the mainstream media brought back the mood of protecting the underdog and preserving an opposing voice. This gathered momentum, culminating with the last two WP rallies. When all else fail, there was always the rally, where the WP would be in its element. And there was the rain at the WP rally on the 22nd of May. Totally drenched with water dripping from their noses, the WP offered, yet again, a public performance of grit and resolution. Suddenly the WP was back in the game. But this is a by-election with no real winners.
In the weeks leading up to the by-election, it felt like the 2011 General Election never happened. The PAP came across as a bully. The opposition reminded me of those from another era; disunited, disorganised, unkempt and ill spoken. When the win was announced on Saturday night, we all knew it was grounded on the Low Thia Khiang factor. It was a fight between Low and Teo Chee Hean, occasionally with Khaw Boon Wan and the Prime Minister. If it was solely a fight between Choo and Png, the results would have been wildly different. Which brings me to my point. If, like Chiam See Tong, Low was too old to fight, we might very well be mourning the legacy of Hougang.
Choo to me is the capable and tenacious new-age PAP candidate. He has a unique relevance, not unlike George Yeo. Both could connect at the constituency and national level. Both lost because they couldn’t turn the national tide of a collective need for a stronger opposition. But both are heavyweights in their own right. Imagine Choo paired with George. The opposition will need to be really worthy because this combination is formidable. If the PAP field more such candidates who are independently confident with that killer ‘softened-and-enlightened’ touch, unless younger and more credible people join the opposition, the future of an influential and effective alternative voice in parliament is fast fading.